Category Archives: Autobiography

Sweet Revenge – Andrea Penrose

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I liked The Cocoa Conspiracy so much that I reserved Andrea Penrose’s Sweet Revenge and settled in with it as soon as it arrived at the library. More intriguing chocolate recipes to copy—and more homicidal Regency nobility to unmask. The first book in the series was as delectable as the sequel so I am now officially a fan. The Regency period was certainly rife with conspiracy and malfeasance—this tale includes the kind of high-level financial shenanigans that characterize life in the 21st century.

The New World is still very new to Europe and ripe for major exploitation when Arianna Hadley’s profligate and beloved father is murdered in the Indies. Her journey back to Europe to seek revenge lands her in disguise as the French chef to a salon hostess—she masquerades as a mustached man with a French accent and the talent to produce marvels of cocoa-based confections. But then a guest—the Prince Regent–is poisoned with the first taste of one of those desserts and the chef is in danger.

Enter a wounded and rough-edged nobleman who boasts both a high position and mixed parentage, making him both insider and outsider in London’s Byzantine social strata. Before he became a decorated soldier, Lord Saybrook studied botany and his rare expertise in all matters concerning chocolate gets him assigned to sort out the attempted murder. Arianna’s disguise has fooled everyone else but it takes almost no time for Saybrook to see through it. As her quest to find and kill her father’s killers and Saybrook’s mission to solve the crime intersect, lethal plots swirl around them.

Arianna is set up as a wealthy widow in fashionable silks and a fine townhouse at Saybrook’s expense and she begins to stalk her prey at the most elegant fêtes in London.  Saybrook hides most of what he suspects about a web of international trade intrigue from Arianna.  There is no trust lost between them, a situation that leads to some disastrous consequences. Both of them have at each other in verbal duels in which neither side is willing to cede a centimeter of advantage. The rich environs of Regency society provide a sharp contrast to the seedier parts of town and remote reaches of the Empire. Events are harrowing and every chapter opens with a dollop of chocolate trivia and a mouthwatering recipe, courtesy of Lord Saybrook’s grandmother’s journal. Do not read this book if you are on a diet, thinking about a diet or in any way susceptible to the lure of chocolate in any form. All forms are presented and each mention is more irresistible than the last.

Andrea Penrose has a winning combination in this mystery format. The sweet tidbits offset the verbal sparring and the malevolent threats. The pace produces suitable tension and the characters are more than spirited and agreeably intelligent. The puzzles are composed of real pieces of history, and lots of real chocolate lore, and seem entirely plausible. Loved it, loved the chocolate, will content myself with making some Chocolate Chipotle Shortbread while I wait impatiently for the next Lady Arianna adventure.

Sweet Revenge: A Lady Arianna Regency Mystery (Lady Arianna Hadley Mystery)   Andrea Penrose | Obsidian  2011

See related post:  The Cocoa Conspiracy

Charlotte au Chocolat – Charlotte Silver

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Charlotte au Chocolat is a memoir—part foodie journal/part chronicle of a childhood spent in a well-known restaurant in Harvard Square. Charlotte Silver was named for the dessert and her parents served several versions of it in Upstairs at the Pudding, the third-floor dining establishment at the Hasty Pudding Club. But the chocolate recipe was so popular that it was always on the menu. So were other favorites—all unapologetically rich, hand-crafted dishes that made the elaborate restaurant avant-garde in a wasteland of Boston baked beans and student fast-food specials.

Charlotte recounts a menu of memories, incidents laced with marbled beef, roasted pheasant, Chantilly cream and the ubiquitous Shirley Temples, served with a flourish to a little girl ordering her nightly meal at the staff table in the corner. She was taught to greet customers and staff by name and dressed every night in an appropriately fancy costume—dress-up for the glittery dining room and its upscale guests. She wore black patent leather Mary Janes instead of sneakers and took naps under the linen covered bar until she got too big for the crawl space.

It was an elevated life for a not-at-all-wealthy family—nightly fine dining in the midst of affluent Bostonians and Harvard visitors, serenades at Sunday brunch by the Krokodiloes—a campy Harvard singing group, brioche stuffed with fried oysters, never macaroni and cheese. Julia Child lived in the neighborhood and stopped in occasionally. Celebrated actors and actresses were feted at the annual Woman and Man of the Year Awards. It was pure theater, a magical world for a child. And a lonely one. But the fairytale setting and access to an intense adult business compensated for the odd upbringing.

Charlotte au Chocolat is interesting—light as a meringue in most spots, serious as Beef Wellington here and there. It reminded me occasionally of Collette’s memoir of her mother, although these memories are far less complex and vividly drawn. Charlotte’s mother was a force to be reckoned with, a woman perfectly attuned to elegance and stage settings who worked like a stevedore in the kitchen and always dabbed a little Joy in her cleavage before the evening seatings. “Never cry in the restaurant,” was one of her strict rules and she didn’t, not even on the night that the Pudding served its last meal and closed, a victim of the greedy real estate gobble that transfigured Harvard Square and peopled it with chain stores and big box emporiums.

Charlotte Silver didn’t take her finely calibrated tastes to Harvard. She studied writing at Bennington in Vermont, on scholarship—the restaurant never made much money and the fridge in the family’s rented apartments was usually untended and mostly empty. Her mother went on to open another, less ambitious restaurant while Charlotte followed somewhat in her father’s footsteps. After a divorce, he gave up working as head chef and began a new career as an art photographer, happy to be out of the kitchen for good. But the Pudding imprinted itself so strongly on a child who grew up there that her mother’s world is the one that defines her. Pink is the predominant color and recollections of elaborate meals, transient staff friendships, endless Shirley Temples and desserts worthy of a court table flavor Silver’s tea party of a book.

 Charlotte Au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood   Charlotte Silver | Riverhead Books   2012

The Man Within My Head – Pico Iyer

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When I saw that Pico Iyer had written a self-examination of his long fascination with and links to Graham Greene, I knew I’d have to read it. Iyer’s work evokes Greene for me sometimes—the outsider’s adventures in extreme and theatrical cultures are the stuff of movie swashbuckling or gritty documentaries. But the exploits cast another kind of filter over the events that I knew as well. There is a sharp and bitter loneliness in not belonging. There are shadows, a knife-edge of introspection, a heightened awareness of what is—and what you are not. It’s easy to become someone else when you travel beyond your own social boundaries but, paradoxically, it’s impossible to avoid yourself.

The Man Within My Head covers territory not often encountered in travel writing. Iyer digs into his bifurcated childhood as an Indian boy in a British boarding school with regular trips home to Santa Barbara where his parents’ academic lives were immersed in the culture of the 60s and 70s. Pico Iyer’s boyhood public school experiences were similar to those of Greene—and his subsequent wandering around the globe duplicated patterns of Greene’s journeys as well.  Greene became for him a kind of surrogate father, a fictional counterpart to the real father, a distinguished Gandhi scholar, who regaled college students with his brilliant syntheses of East and West, classical and contemporary.

The book is not a linear narrative. Scenes emerge, fade, veer off, double back like hairpin-turn mountain roads—the kind with single lanes, sheer drops and white crosses marking fatalities. Trips to Ethiopia and Bolivia seem foolhardy with explicit danger. In Sri Lanka, an explosion of violence makes leaving the relative safety of a hotel room unappealing. In Cuba, the trips are research for an eventual novel, Cuba and the Night, that is very thinly fictional. Our Man in Havana places Greene in eerily similar circumstances. In fact, Greene’s books ghost through Iyer’s travels from Indo-China to the Caribbean. Greene’s spiritual dilemmas engage Iyer in an enduring argument, even as Iyer turns his back on his world and upbringing, searching for some spare truth in his own peregrinations.

A surprise in the recounting of the life of a writer I have always sought out (Iyer, although I could claim the same thing about Greene), Pico Iyer is a good friend of Bernie Diederich. I knew Bernie and worked with him in Miami—he is the grand old dean of Latin American and Caribbean coverage and has written brilliant books on many of the region’s legendary dictators—but, in all the time I knew him, I never suspected he was close to Iyer. A small world just got much smaller. Made me nostalgic for the days when any bag I carried contained a passport, a reporter’s notebook, a pair of Raybans and some cash for the currency exchange.

Iyer’s trek inside his own mind isn’t an extended essay and it isn’t a memoir—more like the puzzling of a Zen koan or a long meditation on a literary and personal influence. Graham Greene was, and remains, a strong presence for him. The Man Within My Head examines the convergence of their lives and work, pulls out pieces of Iyer’s life and holds them up to the light, reveals as much about the author as it does about the real and fictional fathers who haunt him.

The Man Within My Head   Pico Iyer | Alfred A. Knopf   2012

Related post:  Cuba and the Night

Five Pages a Day: A Writer’s Journey – Peg Kehret

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Peg Kehret’s reminiscence about her writing career was filed in the Adult Biography section of the library but it actually seems pitched to younger readers. That isn’t surprising because most of Kehret’s work is in children’s literature. It is an encouraging book for an aspiring writer, with the classic Never-Give-Up message. But it’s somewhat dated as well because the society that shaped Kehret’s experience no longer exists. Instead of marrying a breadwinner, taking years out to raise children and collecting rejections for more years while you perfect your craft, today’s writer might churn out volumes of troll fantasy, publish it online and make her own millions while considering lucrative overtures from legacy publishers. Or not.

The process is still fraught with rejection and discouragement but Kehret maps a voyage of discovery about what she can do best and how she gains confidence as she grows into attempting full-length books. She entered a lot of 25-words-or-less contests and won an impressive amount. She experimented with noms de plume, survived polio, tended her father in his losing battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s, found inspiration in volunteer work with animal shelters and developed deeper empathy for her characters when school author visits took her to Oklahoma City immediately after the terrorist bombing.

As a newbie to the world of writing and publishing at age ten, Kehret learned valuable lessons about what grabs a reader’s attention with her Dog Newspaper and its very limited neighborhood run. The lessons stuck. She’s published more than 40 books and half-a-dozen plays and has solid basic advice to share in this slender volume that will give younger readers a look at what it takes to get your name on the cover of a book.

Five Pages a Day: A Writer’s Journey   Peg Kehret | Albert Whitman & Company   2002

Dawns + Dusks – Louise Nevelson

It is worth going to some trouble to get your hands on a copy of Dawns + Dusks. Louise Nevelson was a great artist and she lived her life as art. Her reflections and aphorisms are sage, inspired and grounded in a visceral need to connect through self-expression. The book, an extended conversation transcribed from interview tapes, delivers a portrait of Nevelson that feels like the real thing. It is her voice, as much as her thinking, that resonates. I am tempted to take quotes from every page and paint them on the walls.

Louise Berliawsky was born in Russia at the turn of the twentieth century and her father soon emigrated to America and sent for his family. She grew up in Rockland, Maine where a Russian-Jewish immigrant family with four kids, a father who owned a lumberyard and an unhappy mother who carried herself like royalty was strictly outsider material. Louise wanted to be an artist from the beginning and her family supported that idea and saw that she received an education. She became Louise Nevelson when she married the son of a shipping magnate—a marriage that introduced her to society in Manhattan, bankrolled her early art, acting and music studies and produced her only child, Mike.

But Nevelson chafed at any sort of confinement. Eventually she left her marriage, studied art in Europe to learn the new style, cubism, and ended up back in New York, single mother, raging artist, still studying, determined to draw her life according to her own vision. She recounts friendships with Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo, studies with Krishnamurti and the artist Hans Hofmann, artistic epiphanies on the streets of the city and in museums at sudden glimpses of color and light that affected her deeply. All of life became art for her–she showed early sculpture in the first exhibit of the Museum of Modern Art, took up modern dance, scavenged wood from curbs and trash piles to use in sculptures when she couldn’t afford materials. She didn’t become truly famous until she was about to turn sixty—one art critic in the 1940s caught himself just in time to avoid praising her as a significant force in the art world when he observed that she was a woman, a category that, apparently, didn’t count.

She continued to court gallery owners and show her work—the reclaimed wood bits were nailed together into arrangements of totemic walls that she painted all white or black or gold. Entire rooms of museums were dedicated to shows of her work so that the patrons would have a complete experience of the environment the cubist-inspired sculpture created. I always found these exhibits mesmerizing and moving and spent as much time as I could lurking in them, entranced by the feeling of Nevelson’s work, alive to its energy. I consider her solidly in the handful of artists who are my absolute favorites, whose work I would own and treasure if fortune ever dictated I live in a private gallery.

“I always wanted to show the world that art is everywhere, except it has to pass through a creative mind,” she said. “When I am working, I know that I am working back into time, through all civilizations. Maybe my eye has a great memory of many centuries.”

She struggled for recognition but she never doubted her gift or her path. “I do like to claim that my being here has shaken the earth a bit,” she mused to MacKown. Once an interviewer asked her what she would like to come back as in her next incarnation. Nevelson didn’t believe in reincarnation but she had a ready answer for the question anyway.

“Louise Nevelson.”

Eavesdrop on this book if you can. It will spur you do something important, lasting and unafraid with your life.

Dawns and Dusks: Taped Conversations With Diana MacKown     Louise Nevelson | Scribners  1976

Just Kids – Patti Smith

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Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir of her twinship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, is many things. It is a primer on how to follow an inchoate longing and become an artist out of nothing and nowhere. It is a testament to a bond so unbreakable it survived gut-wrenching poverty, sexual ambivalence, homelessness, hunger, and an assemblage of male lovers—some his, some hers.

The two kids who swanned around Greenwich Village, Coney Island and the Chelsea Hotel in their thrift store costumes fed each other, supported each other, used each other in their art, moved apart and came together from their earliest days in New York City to Mapplethorpe’s death at 43 from AIDS in 1989. Along the journey, Smith discovered how to merge her poetry with rock and roll and Mapplethorpe turned away from his Catholic boyhood into a fascination with hustling, S&M and a singular vision of photography. Her first album, Horses, with an iconic cover photo shot by Mapplethorpe, exploded into public consciousness. His evocative and disturbing photos, collages and drawings established him as a polarizing rebel who inspired love and hate in equal measure.

Smith writes description in poetic riffs that transform memory into dream. She has clear recall of telling moments with the pantheon of musical, literary and artistic greats who hung out at Max’s Kansas City, the Chelsea Hotel, CBGB and Horn & Hardart’s. Allen Ginsburg once supplied the missing dime that allowed a starving Smith to snag a cafeteria sandwich then, ever on the prowl, asked her if she was a boy or a girl. Smith once cut her long hair in the style of Keith Richards and earned instant acceptance from some hard-sell members of Warhol’s crowd. Mapplethorpe saved Smith from a dinner date gone wrong by pretending to be her boyfriend—and then he became her boyfriend. They were silly, naïve, intensely serious about becoming artists, worked on their art day and night, shared a single hot dog, a single museum ticket, a single room with a hotplate, a single vision that filled their empty bellies and warmed their unheated digs.

Just Kids is the “this happened” and “then that happened” and then “this is who was there” formula of celebrity memoirs that capture a rich period in time. But it’s much more. It’s the story of a connection that seems almost mystical to Smith. Mapplethorpe embraced his homosexuality but turned to Smith as his permanent muse. Patti Smith went on to marry and have two children. The last photograph Robert Mapplethorpe took of her includes her infant daughter, reaching out to him from her mother’s arms. When they were young, hungry and just starting out, a tourist urged her husband to take a picture of Smith and Mapplethorpe at Washington Square Arch in the Village, a hangout for colorful types all dressed like impoverished artists. The husband surveyed the two of them, real artists deep in anonymity and still searching to define their art, and said “Nah. They’re just kids.” They were. But he missed a great shot.

Just Kids   Patti Smith | HarperCollins   2010

Holding onto the Air: An Autobiography — Suzanne Farrell with Toni Bentley

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What happened in Suzanne Farrell’s life was George Balanchine so Holding onto the Air: An Autobiography is the story of her relationship with Mr. B.  Roberta Sue Ficker was a talented young Ohio dancer in a family of ability, ambition, an absent father and a mother who struggled to bring up three girls to succeed in the arts. When Suzanne was fifteen, her mother moved the entire family to New York so her daughter could audition for SAB, the School of American Ballet that trains dancers for the New York City Ballet. Balanchine was making history in his reign at NYCB and he singled out young Suzanne as a romantic obsession and muse.

Farrell was a great dancer in a company of superb dancers but you don’t hear much about the rest—the entire story is a recounting of the extraordinary ballets Balanchine made on her, the pursuit of the teenage prodigy by a brilliant much older Mr. B., married to his fourth wife and former balletic muse Tanaquil le Clercq, and Farrell’s exultation and confusion at the laser beam of attention.

She is kind to Balanchine and not snippy about the other dancers, although her status as Balanchine’s favorite seemed to remove her from much interaction with the rest of the company. There were the exacting and daring solos, the hours of pas de deux rehearsals with celebrated partners, the post-performance noshes and debriefs with Balanchine at late-night diners on the Upper West Side, the world at her much-abused and very fabulous feet.

Hers was an amazing life and career, atypical for a dancer and graced by the fixation of the greatest ballet choreographer of the twentieth century. Holding onto the Air is a fascinating read that would be helped by some familiarity with the rigors and language of ballet—there’s a lot of insider information that benefits from context.

Farrell and Balanchine had a falling out when she married a dancer from the company who was subsequently fired. She and her husband moved to Europe for a time to find work but Farrell eventually returned to a more subdued but no less artistically rich collaboration with Balanchine. She danced with New York City Ballet until 1989 when injuries forced her retirement. Balanchine was dead six years by then but his legacy had become her life and her art long before. She was as much his creation as his muse and her story is a glimpse inside a world beyond the ken of mere mortals, where lives seem fated and elevated by the gods.

Holding On to the Air: An Autobiography   Suzanne Farrell with Toni Bentley  University Press of Florida  2002